Sexual harassment and misconduct is rampant today. Headline news is focused on prominent allegations of sexual harassment within the highest levels of power, including Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Fox News’ celebrity host Bill O’Reilly, Amazon studio chief Roy Price, New Orleans celebrity chef John Besh, several high-ranking politicians, and many more.
Sexual harassment is harmful in many ways. Not only can it jeopardize the victim’s emotional, mental, and in some cases physical health, but the effects of it can be long-lasting and life-altering for the harassed.
Responses to sexual harassment can range from confronting the aggressor, trying to avoid the harasser, agreeing to change the work relationship with the tormentor, or getting away from the situation altogether. For many victims who choose to keep quiet, the reason could be fear of retaliation, loss of a job or worse – that nothing will be done and the harasser will continue harming the victim and others with impunity.
Coming forward to complain about sexual harassment is never easy, but it is the only legal way for most victims to break free of the hostile work environment they have endured and start to heal. It is also the best way to fight back against an endemic problem in our society and to try and ensure these harassers do not harm any more victims.
At The Arnold Law Firm, our employment team has more than 65 years of combined experience fighting back for victims of sexual harassment. We recognize that trying to determine how to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace can be intimidating and confusing. Here are our recommendations for anyone being victimized by sexual harassment in the workplace.
A first impulse for many employees is to walk away and quit their jobs. They may be too scared to return to work or feel humiliated by the conduct of the aggressor. Quitting may, however, cause you to lose your sexual harassment claims.
When an employer has a written sexual harassment policy, the law requires the harassment victim to report the harassment pursuant to the policy and give the employer the chance to do something about it. Otherwise, you may have no recourse.
One of the hardest things a victim of sexual harassment has to do is to come forward and reveal the misconduct of the harasser who, in many cases, may be the victim’s supervisor, boss, or even the president of the company. It may seem like nothing good will come out of reporting the harassment. But, if nothing changes, nothing changes.
The only way to ensure that your harasser stops mistreating you and does not continue to harass you (or other employees) in the future is to face it, rather than run from it. The #metoo movement is empowering victims of sexual harassment to come forward in solidarity to show support for other victims of sexual harassment. You are not alone and your bravery in facing your harasser may well save someone else from having to endure the pain you have experienced.
There are legal time limits that can affect your claims of sexual harassment. For example, in many cases, an employee must file a formal complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing or Equal Employment Opportunity Commission within a short time period following the harassment or risk losing the ability to file a lawsuit for damages.
It is a good idea to contact a lawyer early on in the process both to be sure that you are within the legal time limits that might affect your case and to receive guidance from someone you can trust to walk you through the process.
Before reporting sexual harassment, you want to be certain that you are following your employer’s procedures. Those are usually found in an employee handbook, on posters in the breakroom, or in collective bargaining agreements. If your employer has a confidential hotline, you can begin your complaint there and ask for help about how to make a formal complaint of sexual harassment.
You must follow the suggested steps by reporting the harassment to the person designated to receive such complaints. If that person is the harasser, you do not need to confront him or her directly. Instead, you can bypass your harasser and bring your complaint directly to Human Resources or any other person in a position of authority that you trust will help you report the incident(s) through the proper channels.
Always put your harassment complaint in writing – no matter what. Be sure to label your complaint as a Formal Complaint of Sexual Harassment and mention that the conduct you are describing is creating a hostile work environment.
Describe what happened to you in as much detail as possible and describe every sexual act or comment, joke, innuendo, or otherwise offensive situation you have experienced at the hands of your harasser. You also want to include any other harassment accusations or sex-based misconduct you know of within the company.
Harassment is not always overt sexual misconduct. The following are also examples of sexual harassment and should be included in your complaint:
Once a harassment complaint is made, the employer is required by law to investigate the complaint. They may separate you from your harasser or even give you a paid leave of absence so that you do not have to be at work while the investigation takes place. They should interview your co-workers, the harasser and any witnesses you identify in your complaint before coming to a conclusion.
While the idea of all of these people finding out what has been happening to you may sound terrifying, most victims have reported to us that the act of complaining was, or eventually felt, empowering. Unfortunately, not all investigations will “substantiate” your claims as many of the witnesses interviewed may be current employees who are also afraid of losing their jobs and are not willing to come forward with the truth.
If your investigation is unsubstantiated, do not give up. It may be best to contact a lawyer for help with showing the employer what actually happened.
Your employer is required to provide a safe working environment that is free from sexual harassment. If you are retaliated against or continue to be harassed after submitting a formal complaint, be sure to report that as well. Include your original complaint and specify exactly what has happened to you since you made the complaint.
It is important to keep notes when anything is going wrong at work so that you can document your claims if that conduct turns out to be unlawful. If you have notes, you should include them with any initial or follow up report you make. If your complaints are having no effect and you feel that you are being targeted because you complained, find an attorney to help you pursue a more formal complaint.
Sometimes the harassing conduct is so severe that the victim is truly unable to continue working because he or she no longer feels safe. Under such circumstances, you are not required to continue working in an unsafe environment.
You are required to make an effort to address the issue before walking away from your employment, and sometimes calling in sick and making the report from home might be the best way to do that. In other circumstances, particularly where the harassment is severe and it appears that the company is not doing anything to help you, it may be time to resign.
There are legal arguments supporting the right to sue even after you quit your job because of harassment. Those arguments require specific circumstances to be present and any harassment victim should talk to a lawyer before making that decision.
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